Don’t think you can climb Everest? Jeff Reynolds knows you can.
In Jeff Reynolds’ 36-year mountaineering career, he’s summited well over 250 peaks. He’d give you an exact number, except he lost count back in ’05. On average, Reynolds summits ten 14,000-foot peaks per year. From the Cordillera Blanca in Peru to the summit of Everest, Reynolds has tackled, and led, some of the world’s most treacherous peaks. He’s organized and led expeditions in 25 countries, including Papua New Guinea, Russia, Mongolia, Chile, and Argentina. At this very moment, Reynolds is scaling some untouched mountain in Antarctica, racking up a handful of first ascents only after ticking off the Vinson Massif, the sole remaining peak Reynolds needs to join the select few who have climbed the Seven Summits.
With a climbing vitae like that, would you be surprised to hear that home for Reynolds is right in our backyard of Richmond, Virginia? Or that guiding high-altitude trips for his company S2 Mountaineering is just a side gig—his “real world” job is director of the Division of Enforcement for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality?
So why does he do it? And how does he do it? Reynolds hopped on the phone with us before jetting to Antarctica to answer these very questions and prove how you, too, can live in the Blue Ridge and train adequately for conquering Everest.
When did you start climbing?
I started climbing when I was 14 during summer camp in Ontario. I grew up in Illinois among the cornfields and dairy cows, so climbing became meaningful to me really quickly.
And your alpine experience? How did that all begin?
My parents would take me to Colorado to go skiing as a child. Soon I started incorporating my climbing skills into ice climbing, then into ski mountaineering. I met the late Scott Fischer who was part of my encouragement to get into high altitude mountaineering, and everything just came together.
Is there any crossover between being an environmental attorney and alpine climbing?
There’s this thread in my life about environmental protection and my attraction to the landscape. It’s all part of the same picture. It all connects for me.
So why high altitude expeditions?
The reason I gravitate toward alpine climbing, it’s where I’m at. When you look around at this high alpine landscape, like the Bolivian or Peruvian Andes, it’s just moving. In terms of the type of fulfillment that gives, it’s spiritual and it’s personal. Climbing has been there to balance out a lot of things and it has been an escape. I feel more secure in the Himalayas on the side of a wall than I do walking down the street in Richmond. I understand it better.
In 2012 you led an expedition to the summit of Everest with a 100 percent success rate. How did you do it?
I made a point to do all of my conditioning right here in Virginia. There’s this idea that you have to live in the mountains to be a mountaineer, but Charlottesville is at 594 feet. It’s not so much about where you live but what you actually do. Higher peaks may be more accessible in Denver and Seattle, but once you get past 14,000 feet, everyone has to acclimatize anyway.
What is your go-to training route here in the Blue Ridge?
On the other side of Old Rag, there are over 200 miles of trails. If you start out in the Old Rag parking lot, you can take a circuit that goes all the way over to Buck Hollow, up and down the ridgeline. It’s really cool with a lot of nice elevation gain that’s probably close to 40 miles.
Conditions here in Virginia are so different from an alpine environment. How do you prepare for that?
I actually like going out in the winter at night here in Virginia, especially when storms are coming in, because no one is out there. It’s counterintuitive for Virginians to go out and trek at night, but it’s magical out there. The wildlife, it’s peaceful, it’s really quiet, and there’s nobody out. It’s really excellent conditioning.
You’re 51 years old, a father of two—do you ever ask yourself if the risk is worth the reward?
It’s a really good question and it’s hard for people who haven’t been “out there” to understand. You do have kids, you do have responsibility, and yet you assume all this risk. I’ve had this amazing climbing career and I’m still around to talk about it. I’ve had plenty of close calls, I’ve lost friends, I know friends who don’t have limbs anymore, but I feel really humbled that I’m still able to do what I’m doing. I know what I do is controversial and I’ve had people make comments to me about that. The only thing I can say is we all have to do our own thing. I can’t stand playing golf. I wish it would be that easy for me.
What is one of your more memorable “close calls?”
This was before I had kids. I was out solo on a fourteener in Colorado. I knew a storm was coming in but I thought, ‘Eh, it’s not going to be a problem.’ I did get to the top, but the storm came in faster than I could get down. It was pretty windy and cold, but that wasn’t a big deal. What was a big deal was the sleet. Everything was covered in it. I crawled underneath this corniced area and slept overnight until the sun came up the next day and it melted off the ice. By this time, my then wife, divorced now, no wonder, had already called the sheriff’s office. That was one of those things where I was pushing it a little too far.
What advice do you have for our aspiring, Blue Ridge-based mountaineers?
It’s not just about physical fitness. It’s about the mental fitness and discipline. If you want to do something bad enough, you’re going to figure out how to do it. It’s fortunate and a little disheartening that we’ve turned mountains into trophies. The trophy is the change we demand in ourselves in order to be successful.